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Piece Of Mind


Columnist Olivia Sudjic on why technological substitutes for touch can't ever amount to the real thing


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I’d expected to feel happy seeing my parents on their doorstep when, approaching Day 60 of my lockdown, I went to pick up a mask and latex gloves. But seeing them in person (albeit from a distance) for the first time in so long was a shock. I managed to act normal until the door closed, at which point I burst into tears. What do I mean by normal? The reality and behaviour I would’ve thought of as normal sixty days ago is entirely different now. Suddenly everything I’ve acclimatised to seemed crazy - not being able to touch them, not being able to go inside, not being able to look after each other how we would in any other crisis. It was easier when I’d been cocooned at home, not expecting to feel close because they were on the other side of London.

The jarring, physical shock of seeing them reminded me how poor, if necessary, a substitute technology is, as well as worry what our prolonged dependency on (and increased surveillance through) it will normalise in turn. It also made me wonder how healthy some of my pandemic coping strategies are. Many of my friends, however extroverted, now confide that seeing people on screen leaves them feeling more alone, and have begun to avoid Zoom ‘like the plague’ - an expression we now viscerally understand. ‘When you see someone in person you *are* the energy, whereas onscreen you have to *create* it’, one told me. I was relieved to hear him say this, and to read what Jeremy Bailenson - a professor at Stanford University who studies what happens when humans shift their interactions into cyberspace - explained in the Financial Times: ‘Most of us are not used to staring directly into enlarged faces on screen for hours on end. This can be exhausting, since it requires us to actively engage our brains, like being immersed in a new language.’ I’ve begun looking out for people who feel the same, finding it comforting when someone shares this alienation, more comforting than Zoom anyway. As Megan Nolan, self-isolating alone, wrote in the New Statesman: ‘So far, I have accepted these imperfect interactions as “better than nothing”, but I am beginning to seriously doubt that… Now I suspect that the inadequate approximation of something as profound and fundamentally necessary as human connection may ultimately be more depressing than its absence.’

“When you see someone in person you *are* the energy, whereas onscreen you have to *create* it

There may be comforting ways to simulate normality with technology, like when Connell falls asleep while Marianne works at the other end of a Skype call in the TV adaptation of Normal People, but it is still a simulation. Even a soothing, silent presence (less exhausting) can’t make up for the lack of real, physical touch so many of us are experiencing 24-7, or when we try to ‘stay in touch’ virtually. I already knew about the relationship between physical contact and oxytocin, the bonding hormone released during sex and childbirth, but this week I learnt about the neurological phenomenon of ‘skin hunger’ - the biological need for human touch. As Sirin Kale writes in Wired: ‘It’s why babies in neonatal intensive care units are placed on their parent’s naked chests. It’s the reason that prisoners in solitary confinement often report craving human contact as ferociously as they desire their liberty.’ “When you touch the skin,” explains Tiffany Field at the University of Miami, “it stimulates pressure sensors under the skin that send messages to the vagus [a nerve in the brain.] As vagal activity increases, the nervous system slows down, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and your brain waves show relaxation. Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are also decreased.”


Without human touch (or even a pet) we are less calm and less sane - which may cause us to socially withdraw. I suspect this is part of what is happening to me. Seeing loved ones without being able to touch them is making me more depressed than not seeing them, and my coping strategy has been to find distraction. Forms of escapism which let me forget the whole situation rather than bump up against its limitations. On balance I feel better than when I was consuming so much news I felt hungover, and my brain adapted to that too, so that I had to consume more and more news just to feel anything, so is leaning out better for my mental health? When I used to see a CBT therapist for my anxiety disorder, we talked about distraction as a temporary coping strategy. It was a way to dull the hyper vigilance that I experienced whenever faced with uncertainty - the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response triggered by traumatic events. By temporarily distracting myself, it lessened the chance of making bad, impulsive decisions, and bought time for my emotions to decrease in intensity, ideally (thought not always) making them somewhat easier to manage. But a key word here is ‘temporary’. Distraction is not about trying to escape or avoid a feeling. Eventually you will return to the ‘reality’ of that emotional state. This is especially true when such an emotional state is bound up with the news. At this point I had to find other ways to manage - and it’s when I’d often turn to writing. Paying attention to what I really felt and what was going on around me.

We’ve been trying for years to get people out of normal mode… What is possible politically is fundamentally different when lots of people get into emergency mode

Right now, the whole world is either distracted by Covid-19 or distracting themselves from the distraction by escaping reality completely. But real coping is not numbness or avoidance - neither of which seems sustainable for a crisis that looks set to be long term. If any good can come out of this pandemic, it will be that a broken system is replaced with something better, and for that to happen we cannot pretend we aren’t living through an emergency. As Margaret Klein Salamon, a former psychologist who now heads the advocacy group The Climate Mobilization, explained in The Guardian: ‘We’ve been trying for years to get people out of normal mode… What is possible politically is fundamentally different when lots of people get into emergency mode’.

Listening to a podcaster interview one of my heroes, Naomi Klein, I felt personally attacked to hear her say that one of her biggest worries was that we’d spend our entire time in lockdown on social media, bingeing Netflix and listening to…er… podcasts. In order to compel myself to stop pull-refreshing the news, I had re-watched the entirety of Cheer and engaged with politics only of the toothless kind via social media. As Klein reminded the podcast’s host: usually after a disaster such as a hurricane, we lose everything including electricity, whereas with this pandemic we have ‘distraction in abundance’, pulling us in to ‘a world of make believe’ to normalise it, when she believes ‘this is a moment to confront reality in as unvarnished a way as we possibly can.’

What I’m striving for now is balance - paying attention to the news and to the political sleight of hand that is relying on citizens being distracted, but also paying attention to my surroundings, the changing season, the social and psychological shift we are all experiencing. Rather than trying to ‘normalise’ with substitute forms of human interaction, I am learning to accept its absence.

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